Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Review: The Silver Chair

I was looking forward to getting to The Silver Chair as it was actually my very first foray into Narnia. Since as long as I can remember I’ve owned the (disappointingly abridged) audiobook, and in re-reading it, I could still hear the narrator’s voice in my head and the voices he put on for the different characters. There’s even a good chance that somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain it’s the story’s vivid descriptions of caves and tunnels and darkness that sparked my problems with claustrophobia.

My point is that although I read all the Narnia books in childhood, The Silver Chair is the one that I came to so early that I have no memory of discovering it for the first time. The dying king, the four signs, the desolate moor, the Harfang giants, the gloomy subterranean network, the enchanted prince – I’ve always had these images in my head.

The Title:

But reading it again in adulthood put some things in perspective. First of all, does anyone else think that The Silver Chair is an incredibly strange title? Without exception, all the other books refer to either a character (The Magician’s Nephew, Prince Caspian, The Horse and His Boy) or an important event (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Last Battle). But this focuses on a fairly unimportant piece of furniture (unimportant because Lewis could have just as easily chosen to chain Rilian to a wall or a bed or something) that gets introduced and smashed up within a few pages.

The only title it’s comparable to would be “the Wardrobe” part of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but you’ll agree that that’s a far more memorable and integral magical device than the silver chair. Surely a better title would have been “The Lost Prince” (the object of the quest) or something that emphasized the journey throughout the Underland (the book’s most memorable setting). But the relatively minor silver chair that isn’t even capitalized in the text itself? That one stumps me.

The only illustration of the titular chair

Perhaps the title is meant to draw attention to the importance of the scene in which our heroes chose to take their lives into their hands and release the (presumably mad) prince from the chair’s bonds? Or perhaps Lewis just couldn’t think of anything better to call it.

But The Silver Chair (the book that is) holds a lot of other “firsts” than just being the first one named after an object. It’s the first book in which the child protagonists are friends instead of siblings or relatives. It’s the first time Aslan has played a relatively minor role; not appearing whenever the children get into the slightest hint of trouble, but distancing himself from the action and appearing only at the beginning and end of the story (and in a brief dream sequence midway through, which I suspect was contrived so that the reader wouldn't completely forget about him). And it’s the first time Lewis has written a flawed yet likeable three-dimensional female character.

Jill Pole:

Before you challenge that last statement, let me elaborate. I’m a passionate defender of Susan and I like Lucy just fine, but oftentimes you (or at least I) can feel too much authorial fiat in the way each one is portrayed. I don’t get the sense that Lewis ever liked Susan (The Last Battle seals the deal), whereas he liked Lucy so much that after a while you feel that there’s not much to learn about her (yes, she gets the occasional moment of weakness, as when she cast the eavesdropping spell on the Magician’s Island, but most of the time she’s fairly infallible). She’s clearly Aslan’s favourite, which means it’s safe to say that she’s Lewis’s favourite as well. Which means that she's always going to be a on a bit of a pedestal.

But Jill on the other hand – Jill is human.

I’m not entirely certain of the chronology here, but I’m pretty sure that by the time The Silver Chair was written, Lewis had struck up his friendship with Joy Gresham (though they were not yet married), suggesting that her influence in his life increased his understanding of women. I also believe that The Horse and His Boy had been written before The Silver Chair was completed (though the latter was published first), which possibly explains why that book feels like an improvement on Prince Caspian in his depiction of girls (Aravis, Lucy) though still not quite as good as Jill in The Silver Chair (the blatantly unfavourable comparison of Susan/Lasaraleen to Lucy/Aravis).

But with Jill Pole, we have a female character who most feels like a genuinely flawed and therefore likeable heroine - furthermore, one who is not interchangeable with a boy. She's not overtly feminine, yet she's not a tomboy either. She hasn't got a trace of maternal instincts, yet she gets excited over the lovely dress and horse of the Green Lady.  

You can almost see Lewis experimenting with his understanding of how girls think and behave, so that at the same time we get eye-rolling lines such as Jill’s admonition that “where I come from, they don’t think much of men who are bossed about by their wives” and Lewis’s own condescending remark that: “I hope you won’t lose all interest in Jill for the rest of the book if I tell you that at this moment she began to cry”, we also get his frank admission that although Jill didn’t know much about compasses, “I don’t know about girls in general” and his observation that Jill’s display of childishness to the giants is an act that “girls do better than boys.”

(Perhaps he’s trying to be damn with faint praise here, but since Jill’s performance saves their lives, I’ll going to consider it a point in her favour).

"Oops. My bad."

She gets other strengths (a good head around heights, the ability to saddle a horse) and weaknesses (her claustrophobia, her insistance on going to Harfang), but sometimes Lewis is just plain idiotic, regardless of gender. Towards the end of the book he states: “Jill, who had been so cowardly about going through a black hole between one cave and another, went without fear between the stamping and snorting [horses],” a sentence that scorns and praises her in the same breath, and which is seemingly unaware that Jill enduring her claustrophobia in the Underland is a testament to her bravery, not any perceived cowardice.  

But most interesting is the fact that Jill is our point-of-view character for the book’s duration. The POVs of the previous books have constantly shifted between the four Pevensies, whilst The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy focus on Digory and Shasta respectively. But The Silver Chair? It belongs entirely to Jill.

In fact, I was astonished at how much of a non-entity Eustace feels as a result of Jill’s centrality. I’m struggling to think of anything – good or bad – that he contributes to the plot, for it’s Puddleglum who acts as guide, Jill who memorizes Aslan's signs (and then regularly screws them up), and Rilian who kills the serpent and leads them back to Narnia. For the most part Eustace is simply along for the ride, making the odd comment and providing the occasional call-back to Dawn Treader.

On the other hand, Lewis is constantly sharing Jill’s thought-process, describing her specific fears and experiences. Whenever the group is split up (namely at Caer Paravel and Harfang), Lewis opts to follow Jill instead of Eustace. And of course, it’s Jill’s faults that have the most effect on the narrative: her showing off makes Eustace fall from the cliff-top, her longing for warmth at Harfang nearly gets them all killed, and she grapples with her claustrophobia in the Underland.

Perhaps Lewis felt Eustace had already gone through his fair share of character development in the last book, and so it's Jill who steps up to become the book's protagonist. 

The Lady of the Green Kirtle:

There is of course another prominent female character in The Silver Chair, one that serves as a stark contrast not only to Jill, but also the Star’s Daughter (Rilian’s mother) and the long-dead White Witch.

Lewis is infuriatingly obtuse on the nature and background of the Green Lady (no, I’m not going to write out "the Lady of the Green Kirtle" every time she comes up). We know virtually nothing about her beyond the fact she’s a Northern Witch and (in this capacity) is comparable to Jadis: “doubtless the same kind as that White Witch who had brought the Great Winter on Narnia long ago.”

And yet the two are very different. Whereas Jadis – despite her name – is associated with winter and whiteness (along with her iconic black hair/red lips combo), the Lady is blonde and described no less than three times as “green as poison”, either in reference to her dress or serpent scales. She is soft and seductive, using a blend of her beauty, voice and musical ability to lull the heroes into an enchantment, and it’s safe to suppose that it was her suggestion on the Giant’s Bridge that instilled within the children their deep urgency to visit Harfang. Her power is rooted in feminine seductiveness.

Jadis on the other hand, though it’s never occurred to me until now, is extremely masculine. Her beauty is harped upon constantly, but she never deliberately uses it as a weapon (except, arguably, in the famous Turkish Delight scene), instead preferring to use her physicality and strength to assert authority: pulling cross-bars off lamp-posts, marching across the countryside with her sleeves rolled up, and sharpening her own knife when the time comes to kill Edmund.

I can’t imagine the Green Lady doing any of this, and it’s only when she reverts to her (true?) form as a serpent that she becomes any kind of physical threat. And unlike Jadis, who gets a fairly fleshed-out backstory in The Magician’s Nephew, the origins of the Green Lady remain a complete mystery.

There is some speculation that the White Witch and the Green Lady are one and the same person, no doubt brought on by the fact that the same actress played both roles in the BBC television adaptations back in the 1980s, but this theory is supported by absolutely nothing in the books, especially in regards to their personas, tactics and physical appearance.

So the Green Lady remains a mysterious creature, though this review has a (not very serious) theory that perhaps she’s the unnamed sister of Jadis mentioned in The Magician’s Nephew, though again – there’s nothing in the text to back that up (especially since Lewis refuses to give either Jadis’s sister or the Green Lady an actual NAME).

But I have another pet theory as to where the Green Lady might have come from, one partly inspired by the death of the Star’s Daughter (another nameless female character – DAMN IT LEWIS!) But it struck me on reading The Silver Chair just how strange some of the Lady’s behaviour in this book really was. For instance – why kill Rilian’s mother? What purpose did it serve? To weaken the kingdom? To make Rilian emotionally vulnerable and therefore easier to manipulate? To usurp her place as Queen when the enchanted Rilian retook the throne?

But then there’s this line, describing the last moments of the Star’s Daughter's life:

As long as the life was in her she seemed to be trying hard to tell [Rilian] something. But she could not speak clearly and, whatever her message was, she died without delivering it.

Could it be the Star’s Daughter was murdered because she was the only one who knew who the Green Lady actually was? And that this was what she was trying to tell Rilian in the moments before her death? But how could the Star’s Daughter and the Green Witch know each other?

Well, we learned in Dawn Treader that occasionally stars come to earth in human form – usually from old age, but at least on one occasion as a punishment. And if such a thing happened to Coriakin, then why not the Green Witch as well? However well Coriakin took his punishment, perhaps the Green Lady was far less gracious in accepting hers and so decided to conquer Narnia for revenge. And naturally a Star's Daughter would be well aware of any wayward stars running around the place.

If the Green Witch was a fallen star, it might explain her otherwise bewildering decision (and in fact, her sheer ability) to murder a woman who had “the blood of stars [running] in her veins”, and why (despite both being described as “Northern Witches”) she was so fundamentally different in design from the half-giantess/half-jinn Jadis. And could the silver chair have been somehow formed out of star-matter?

Of course, this theory is totally unsubstantiated by the text, and opens up at least one more question: what did the Green Lady have done as a star to be cast down to earth? As Ramandu once said: “it is not for a Son of Adam to know what faults a star can commit.”

A Possible Plot Hole?

Yes, I’m afraid I’m going to talk about the Green Lady for a little longer. Namely, what the heck was up with that meeting on the Giant’s Bridge? It’s simultaneously the best and worst scene in the entire book – best because it’s so gloriously surreal and evocative (meeting a beautiful lady and a mute knight smack-dab in the middle of nowhere) and worst because it doesn’t make much sense.

"Why are we here?"

First of all, regardless of how deliciously creepy her inexplicable appearance is, what on earth is the Green Lady doing out on the moors anyway? And where the heck is she going? It becomes apparent quite quickly that lays a trap for the children, putting the seeds of longing in their minds as to the luxuries of Harfang, all with the intention of having them eaten by giants at the Autumn Feast – but then why take Rilian with her, albeit disguised in a suit of black armour?

Lewis tries to cover for it later, when the enchanted Rilian explains: “she rideth out with me in the Overworld many a time and oft to accustom my eyes to the sunlight,” but I suspect he just really liked the image of a silent Black Knight with his visor pulled down, as well as the irony of the children passing the object of their quest without knowing it.

But if they were out to simply accustom Rilian’s eyes to the sunlight, then how did they get so far away from the Underland City? It’s possible that the Green Lady (somehow) knew the children were coming and deliberately rode out to meet them, but it’s just as possible it was an accidental encounter, and that she concocted the Harfang trap on the spot for the sole purpose of treating her allies to a nice dinner. That at least would justify why she so recklessly leaves Rilian by himself right on the verge of her plan coming to fulfilment, especially if she never even realized that the children were envoys of Aslan – but that only loops back to my first question as to why she was so far from the Underland in the first place.

More unfortunately, the situation doesn’t shed a particularly good light on our intrepid heroes. Jill was smart enough to draw the correlation between green serpent and green-clad lady back when Glimfeather related the story of Rilian’s disappearance to her, so why on earth are all three  travellers incapable of making the leap between mortal enemy and beautiful woman in a GREEN dress riding alongside a mysteriously helmeted knight? Oy.

Maybe a spell that clouded their judgment was involved? Who knows, but the whole sequence further illustrates just how mysterious and formidable the Green Lady really is. As this review astutely points out, in some ways she poses more of a threat than Jadis, as without Aslan to bound in and finish her off, our heroes have to first outwit her, then kill her themselves:

One of the things I admire about The Silver Chair is how much defeating the Lady takes. Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill escape the trap she sent them into at Harfang, are captured by her Warden; they are rescued from the Warden by Rilian, but then have to follow the Fourth Sign on pure blind miserable faith. Rilian destroys the chair (Huzzah! we think. Victory!), and then the Lady comes in and very nearly re-enchants all four of them. Their struggle against her is agonizing and verging failure, until Puddleglum deliberately burns his foot. And then she turns into a snake and nearly kills Rilian and it takes both Rilian and Puddleglum (with not much help from Eustace and Jill) to kill her. And then the Deep Realm starts collapsing down around their ears, necessitating a very nerve-wracking escape.

If Jill is the Chronicles’ best female character, then I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that the Green Witch is its best female antagonist.

General Stuff:

But for the central enigma of the Green Lady (who really could have used some fleshing out), The Silver Chair is probably the strongest instalment in terms of its structure and characterization. Aslan’s marginalization means that Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum have to rely on themselves and each other to get themselves out of trouble, with no miraculous appearances from the Lion to bail them out of their screw-ups.

Though the story follows the standard quest narrative, with a health dollop of Spencer’s The Faerie Queen thrown in for good measure, Lewis also adds plenty of his own invention: the Marsh-wiggles (a Narnian species that has never been mentioned before – or again, not even in the genesis of Narnia coming up in two books’ time), the haunting episode in which the trio realize that they’ve been eating the meat of a Talking Stag (a conceit that could only be this horrifying in a Narnian context), and the gloominess of the subterranean Underland with its caves of sleeping creatures offset against the allure of Bism, with its molten river and talking salamanders and promise of eatable/drinkable jewels.  

All things considered, it’s probably the most uncomfortable Narnian adventure. Jill and Eustace endure a grim trek through shitty weather over desolate moors, escape a household full of man-eating giants, and are forced through a network of underground caves with no guarantee they’ll ever see the sun again. They screw up every one of Aslan’s signs but the last (which of course makes their leap of faith in freeing Rilian so rewarding), they’re constantly bickering or being scolded, and they don’t even get to become king and queen at the end! The Pevensies got all the luck.

Fun times in Narnia

One suspects Lewis gave the two of them the pleasant centaur ride through the Narnian morning as compensation for their nightmarish visit, but even that feels like slight compensation.

Yet perhaps it’s this distinct lack of a reward that makes the story itself so rewarding. For all Lewis’s disdain of “grown-up things”, this book actually feels more grown-up. Puddleglum is a rare adult character (Eeyore tendencies aside, he actually acts like a responsible adult), Aslan’s gives Jill and Eustace no assurance that they’ll come back from their quest successful (or even alive), and it ends on a highly bittersweet note considering Rilian is only accorded a brief reunion with his father before Caspian dies.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Whatever happened to Drinian? He plays an important role in the story of Rilian’s initial disappearance, but he’s never seen or heard from again throughout the rest of the book.

I didn’t really have the time or inclination to unpack this properly, but it occurred to me that The Silver Chair is very much a nocturnal book, with emphasis on the stars, the owls, and the Great Snow Dance under the night sky, which in turn feeds into the darkness of the subterranean Underworld, the silver of the titular chair, and the lunacy that comes with the moon’s phases – for Rilian was constantly under a heavy spell save for a limited time each night. All this is in stark contrast to Aslan’s correlation with the light and the sun. Or am I totally reaching here?

If you can, try and watch the BBC's take on The Silver Chair (it's on YouTube). Despite the horrific special-effects, it's not half-bad and Tom Baker totally nails Puddleglum (any chance they could recast him for the upcoming film?)


  1. I'm thoroughly enjoying your reviews. One thing that puzzles me is the time span. Rillian is described as a young man, yet Caspian is described as ancient. Just how old was he - and the Star's Daughter! - when Rillian was born? That bit never made sense to me.

    1. Glad you're enjoying them!

      Re: the age difference - yeah, that is a bit strange. Perhaps it can be chalked down to the old saying "writers can't do math", because there's also some debate on how old the Pevensies were in "The Last Battle."

  2. I’m with you in thinking that The Silver Chair is an incredibly strange title. On one hand it doesn’t really fit with the story, as Rilian was wanting to kill the green serpent that had killed his mother. The Green Serpent, now there’s a fitting title. On the other hand Rilian was kidnapped by the fountain where the queen met her death, not long after sighting the mysterious Green Lady. Much later Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum face the agonising decision about releasing Rilian from The Silver Chair, when (as the black knight to them) called on Aslan’s name to be released, which leads me to believe why this was the chosen title.